He sometimes seems to want to play Churchill. His tangled personal life evokes more affinity with Lloyd George. But Boris Johnson is really the new Disraeli. He does not, unfortunately, resemble the mature and serene elder statesman canonised by late Victorian Tories, but the brash and gifted opportunist who rent his party asunder and lent his talents to a faction reluctant to face reality and consumed by hatred for a decent prime minister who did.
It took Disraeli more than 20 years to emerge as patriarch of a broader Tory Church. Boris Johnson needs to do that in a few weeks as part of a much wider stabilisation of Britain's frenzied and frustrated politics. We all need to wish him a better fate than he presently deserves.
He has a record, especially on Europe, which shows him uncertain whether to be a floating voter or a conviction politician. His 'pragmatism' (or opportunism) could make him a force for good in these bad times. That depends very much on the sense and sensibility of European Union leaders, though such qualities were sorely lacking in the trivial concessions offered to David Cameron before the 2016 referendum and the stubborn refusal to help Theresa May once it was clear that the 'withdrawal agreement' would stumble in the face of the Irish backstop. But it is more realistic to see Boris Johnson's election by the Conservative party not as a new opportunity, but as an unavoidable error.
Two things had made it unavoidable even before the remnant of the once vast Conservative membership – so foolishly allowed to shrink by indifference and high subscriptions – had their ballot papers, a third of which were still cast for what we knew was a lost cause. It should normally be all but unthinkable for venerable Tories like me (whose campaign ribbons go back to the 1950s) to dissent from the preference, however unfortunate, of a majority of Tory MPs. Theresa May discovered how much goes wrong once MPs' confidence is shaken. Whether Johnson will long retain that confidence after his ruthless Cabinet-making is another matter, for dissident and disappointed Tories are now potentially the most destructive force he faces in opposition.
The other occasion for the unavoidable error is that many of those who voted for him without trusting him reckon him an election winner, at least in large parts of England where the Farageists of the Brexit party are a serious if temporary threat. (And even in Scotland he need go down no worse than Theresa May, provided he works hard to keep Ruth Davidson on-side. He is not necessarily at a disadvantage in face of Nicola Sturgeon's soor-ploom dissatisfaction with everything done at Westminster.)
For Boris Johnson, whether you abhor or admire him, is an outstanding personality of British politics – in a rather limited field – and allegedly a 'charismatic' one, the current journalese term for never being dull. That in itself is no claim to office or trust, for some very unpleasant dictators and demagogues have come to power elsewhere on such credentials. But Johnson is a highly intelligent and educated politician who has opted into demagoguery even though he had the talents, but perhaps not the dedication and discipline, to seek the highest office in a more conventional style.
I imagine many Tories who voted for him hope that the premiership will change or at least restrain him. It will save himself and the country a lot of trouble if they are right. I hope they are, but I have my doubts, scarcely dispelled by his treatment of Jeremy Hunt and the contrast between the make-up of his government and his claim to be restoring Tory unity. Margaret Thatcher never mangled her 'Wets' so harshly; and a true Churchillian might have remembered that victory is a time for magnanimity.
Johnson might improve with age and experience but it is very uncertain how much time he can have as prime minister and what his experience will be. Many things depend on a mixture of luck and judgement, good or bad, which lies ahead of him. The likeliest challenges include a fairly early, very turbulent general election, and a damaging no deal Brexit mitigated by last-minute ad hoc arrangements and not quite as catastrophic as most people outside the European Research Group probably fear. But it is unlikely that Johnson himself knows what he will do come September and October, and it is uncertain what the role of his Cabinet will be. It includes several people whose eagerness to take the plunge with Johnson goes with readiness to take over the Tory leadership if he should be washed up.
For the moment, however, the new prime minister will seem to be recreating the Conservative party in his own image, a process which some critics see as an incitement to collective suicide. But neither he, nor Tories who regret his election, nor opponents eager to exterminate us, should presume too much.
For better or worse, he is only an interlude performer in a long history and a tradition whose continuity, despite occasional diversions and obsessions such as the present one with a 'hard Brexit', have made political Conservatism the great force for stability and evolution in British politics, sometimes by consolidating the innovations of its opponents. And if a Conservative party did not exist it would be necessary to invent one, using an even odder mixture of elements than compose the one which Mr Johnson now holds captive through fascination and Brexit frustration.
Events, with accidents as well as calculations and miscalculation, will settle how Britain resolves for this generation and its immediate successor the two great problems that Johnson might partly ease or make worse. One is that Britain is deeply and increasingly divided on how to express a truth that should be universally acknowledged.
For political, geographical, cultural and commercial reasons, we need a close and happy relationship with the EU, but we have neither the inclination nor the national consensus to join the movement towards a federal super-state. Many of us who voted Remain see that as clearly as the new prime minister and feel as strongly about it. The problem could be tackled either by Britain becoming a vigorous restraining influence within the EU or (as the referendum seemed to have settled by a fairly narrow majority) by becoming a friendly neighbour and external partner of some sort.
The best hope now is for Johnson to divert some his alleged charisma to convincing the surlier of the EU policy-makers that it is in no-one's interest for Britain to be left as divided and fractious as it has become since the 2016 referendum.
The other great problem, which really ought to be separate from the dilemma over Europe, is whether Britain can make devolution work. Until now, that has not seemed greatly to concern Mr Johnson, and some of his English support is suspect of more enthusiasm to break the recent link with Europe than sustain the more venerable and fundamental unity of Britain. But in fairness, it should be recognised that the London mayoralty (in which Mr Johnson did rather better than at the Foreign Office) is a form of devolution and that London, like Wales, has made a more sincerely earnest bid to decentralise British government than Northern Ireland, held back by its old quarrels, and Scotland, with its SNP fixation on secession.
Now Mr Johnson has learned the language of unionism. He is probably also sincere enough in wanting to give Scotland a good share of rather risky additional government spending, for prudence was never his favourite virtue. But he will be judged neither by what he has done or left undone in the past, nor what he says now in the aftermath of a flawed victory and volatile opinion-poll ratings, but on what he can do. That may be far less than he hopes, for his options are limited and unpleasant. Disraeli had a lot longer to redeem himself.